“Touring India was a nightmare”. Sir Garry Sobers’ judgement on touring India as an international cricketer. Things were a bit different in his day. Today, those players snapped up in the IPL auction for the 2018 edition can expect world class treatment when they travel to India ahead of the tournament opener on 7th April. But back when Sobers and his West Indies team of 1958 toured the country, the experience of visiting players was somewhat different.
“It wasn’t only on the field”, Sobers went on, “it was the injections you had to take. I remember you used to get an injection for Cholera, and I once went to sleep and when I woke up I couldn’t feel my hand, I didn’t know what the hell it was! And then I remembered it was that bloody injection I had to go to India. And a lot of English players didn’t want to go to India because of the inoculations and everything else”. Indeed this was a something of a common theme during the 1960s and 1970s; that foreign teams would often struggle to convince their whole squad to tour India. A mixture of rising political tensions and fear of the local cuisine was often enough to put players off. Geoffrey Boycott stayed clear for most of his career based on the fact he had had his spleen removed as a child, making him more susceptible than most to infections – something of an occupational hazard in the sub-continent. As recently as 2001 Andrew Caddick and Robert Croft opted out England’s tour based on their security fears following the September 11th attacks and the subsequent bombing of Afghanistan.
But since then, things have changed. “There’s no comparisons between the past and the present”, Sobers continued. “Now India is the place that everyone wants to go to, and their cricket has improved out of all proportion, and they have some beautiful players.”
India is now seen in the cricketing world as the place to be. They’re top of both the Test and One Day International rankings, and second in International Twenty 20’s. Their star men appear on billboards throughout the major cities, on television adverts, and everywhere in between. The Indian Premier League, approaching its ten-year anniversary, is the world’s flagship domestic tournament and the riches it brings to players would have been beyond imagination just a few years ago. Virat Kohli was the only cricketer in the 2017 Forbes top 100 best paid sportsmen in the world. India has become the centre of the cricketing universe, and they are not shy about letting people know that. The 2018 IPL auction once again paid out massive sums for the world’s best players, with nearly every world class player there is putting themselves into the pot for selection. A mixture of being on the biggest stage of all coupled with massive personal financial reward is an irresistible allure for cricket’s global stars.
But such is the attraction of India these days, 218 of the 578 players up for auction this year were foreigners. Only a maximum of eight is allowed per team, which meant many were left unsold. Twenty-four Englishmen in total were on the list, of which eight have been in the test setup over the past twelve months: Root, Woakes, Moeen Ali, Ben Stokes, Steven Finn, Mark Wood, Dawid Malan, Jonny Bairstow and Tom Curran. Most of those players are also involved in England’s white ball squad. If all of them were picked up by an IPL franchise (however unlikely that may be), the ECB would face an anxious wait throughout the tournament in April and early May as to whether their stars would come through safely. Another packed summer of international cricket awaits them on return: 7 tests, 9 ODI’s, 4 t20 internationals. The odds of players such as Wood, Finn, Woakes, Ali and Root playing all three formats throughout the summer for England after fulfilling an IPL contract (had they been picked up) without needing a rest at some point are long. Very long.
Even as test captain, Joe Root was this year entered into the auction. It was announced prior to the auction that Root would miss England’s T20 internationals in the tri-series with Australia and New Zealand due to the long winter he has already endured and the amount of cricket there is to come in the home international summer. However, the fact that the ECB allowed him to be involved in the IPL auction, and available for most of the tournament had he been picked up, is telling. Root is effectively now missing T20 internationals in order to keep himself fresh for his most important cricket – tests, ODIs, and now, potentially the IPL. The ECB will be delighted that instead of being picked up by an IPL franchise, Root will be spending April and May in first-class county cricket, preparing himself for another arduous test summer as England captain. But the riches on offer have proved too much to ignore, and the ECB would have had to play a waiting game, hoping Root came through his first IPL unscathed and ready to return to action for England. If he hadn’t, another storm around their player handling could have erupted, surely the very last thing they need right now.
Chris Woakes picked up a side strain soon after returning to England duty after his spell with the Kolkata Knight Riders in the IPL 2017. He was adamant the injury had nothing to do with the rigorous schedule he faced on the sub-continent, but questions remain about how much the brutal match schedule and attached travel requirements take out of players involved in the IPL at the start of the English summer.
But this is 2018, and India are in charge, not the ECB. And as Sir Garfield says, “The game [in India] has completely changed now – it’s a wonderful game to watch.” For as long as that remains the case, the IPL will continue to attract the world’s best. And the nightmare is no longer for the players touring India. The nightmare is for the international boards who are trying to keep hold of them.